When Good Horses Do Bad Things
Most horses are good. However, any horse can become a bad actor with improper care or handling. Certain horses have a predisposition to neurotic breakdown when faced with domestication pressures. This psychological frailty may be genetically inherited, formed from early experiences with the dam or training, or may develop later in life due to disease or trauma. Horses with neurotic tendencies often form vices.
Vices are undesirable habits that horses exhibit in the stable environment and are generally caused by confinement, over feeding, and stress. Examples are cribbing, stall kicking, and weaving.
Bad habits, such as rearing, halter pulling, or tail wringing are undesirable behaviors in response to human handling and are generally caused by rushed or improper training, uncertainty, insecurity, or resentment. A resentful horse is uncooperative and resistant. His resistance can be based on confusion, fear, disrespect, fatigue, and occasionally high spirits.
Often a horse’s action is interpreted by humans as misbehavior but is perfectly legitimate horse conduct. Of course, what is acceptable behavior between two horses is not between a horse and a human. Here’s where practical horse psychology, behavior modification, training, attitude adjustment, conditioning, whatever you want to call it, is essential.
Most vices and bad habits are preventable, that is, with forethought and proper management and training, most of them can be avoided. Prevention is the desirable route because once certain habits are established, they can be extremely difficult to change. Some habits are manageable, that is, certain techniques and equipment can be used to diminish the negative effects of the habit, but the underlying habit is still there. If the equipment is not used, the habit resurfaces. A few habits are curable. With carefully planned, diligent efforts, some habits can be permanently changed. Some vices and bad habits are incurable.
Vices and bad habits are best approached in a step-by-step manner:
1. Understand horse behavior and needs
2. Identify and describe the vice or bad habit
3. Determine the cause(s)
4. Make management changes (facilities, exercise, nutrition, conditioning, grooming)
5. Implement appropriate training practices
6. Consider remedial training practices
7. Consider medical and surgical solutions.
UNDERSTANDING HORSE BEHAVIOR AND NEEDS A horse’s natural behavior must be altered somewhat so that the horse can adapt to domestication. Basing these modifications on natural behaviors results in minimal stress and long-lasting results.
Whether or not there is action, there is always behavior. A sullen horse, rigid and unyielding, is “behaving” just as is the wildly bucking one. Behavior that is repeated may become habit (even though it was not a human-designed lesson). Horses are constantly learning as a result of their casual handling and their everyday environment as well as from formal training sessions.
The horse is a gregarious nomad with keen senses and instincts and highly developed reflexes. These characteristics are responsible for sending a reining horse to the winners circle as well as sending a panic-stricken horse through a wire fence. Gregarious animals are sociable herd animals. Given the choice, horses are rarely seen alone, preferring to be in close proximity to other horses; there is safety and comfort in numbers.
Horses perform daily routines in response to various needs: eating, drinking, rolling, playing, participating in mutual grooming. The desire to perform these rituals is not diminished, and in fact is probably intensified, for the horse in confinement. Humans might think a horse prefers to be clean, clipped and blanketed but most horses will opt for a good roll in the mud. The old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” is based on firmly implanted habits which are governed by a biological-clock. Many behaviors are socially oriented (and contagious): eating, pawing and rolling, running and bucking, wood chewing, cribbing.
Just because horses want to be with other horses doesn’t mean all horses get along. Battles are fought to determine the pecking order or dominance hierarchy. This establishment of social rank usually makes future aggression unnecessary. Humans occupy a rung on the ladder of power and are tested by horses to see where they stand. A horse handler must convince a horse that the human is on top. Sometimes horses try to interact with humans as if they were horses. While a young horse is being groomed, he often wants to reciprocate as he would to his mutual grooming buddy in the pasture. Even though such a gesture is meant to be friendly, not aggressive, intentions don’t count. The act of nibbling must be discouraged with a clap on the horses neck or shoulder along with a firm “No”. Then get the horse busy doing something else.
If a horse has not been sufficiently socialized away from other horses and with humans, the horse will be insecure and often will desperately attempt to retain communication with or proximity to herd-mates or the barn. The chronic case is called herd bound or barn sour because the insecure horse links comfort, companionship, and food with the barn. What may originate in a young horse as a temporary insecurity may evolve into a long-standing and dangerous habit. In order to ensure that such a bad habit does not get started, handle horses separately from a very early age.
Look for upcoming posts on specific vices and bad habits.